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contemporary poetry

Naked Except for the Jewelry

“And,” she said, “you must talk no more
about ecstasy.  It is a loneliness.”
The woman wandered about picking up
her shoes and silks. “You said you loved me,”
the man said. “We tell lies,” she said,
brushing her wonderful hair, naked except
for the jewelry. “We try to believe.”
“You were helpless with joy,” he said,
“moaning and weeping.” “In the dream,” she said,
“we pretend to ourselves that we are touching.
The heart lies to itself because it must.”

From Refusing Heaven

Prior to a random visit to the local library, I had never heard of Jack Gilbert. Though I make it a point to browse the new releases in contemporary poetry, it is a rare occurrence when a poet hooks into my psyche and refuses to let go.  Jack Gilbert is one of those poets.  Others include Robert Hass, Allen Ginsberg, and Ezra Pound. Every poet worth her stipend understands the importance of voice. Though I was coming from a position of complete ignorance concerning his biography and his aesthetic philosophy, Gilbert’s voice latched into my mind like a Chinese finger trap, burrowing into me with its combination of controlled diction, intellectual engagement, and erotic content.

To those just tuning in, Naked Except for the Jewelry captures a random snippet of post-coital dialogue.  The woman is “brushing her wonderful hair” while the male participant is probably looking around for his pack of American Spirit cigarettes.  (The cancer sticks preferred by socially conscious lefties everywhere, since nothing is antithetical to the aims of Big Tobacco than a schlocky graphic of Native American headgear.)

Back to the poem.  With Fifty Shades of Grey flying off the bookshelves and into the Kindles of discerning philistines everywhere, I would be remiss to avoid the actual eroticism of this brief poem.  One of its beauties is its effortless interplay between the erotic and the intellectual. At an abstract level, the couple talks about ecstasy, love, joy, and truth.  At the fleshly level, one need only look at the title. It is a powerful image, reminiscent of Isabella Rossellini’s performance in Death Becomes Her, the minor film by Robert Zemeckis.  In a scene that has stuck with me to this day, Mrs. David Lynch comes out of a massive swimming pool clad in nothing but a blocky necklace covering her bosoms.  (Rossellini is the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini and possesses a sculptural beauty and haute elegance unrivaled in modern Hollywood actresses.  Catherine Zeta-Jones comes close, but Rossellini’s beauty is Garbo-esque.)

The female nakedness implies an almost clichéd thrust towards the notion of authenticity.  To be nude is to be unadorned, stripped of the divisive symbols of civilization.  Except that she wears jewelry, symbolic of wealth and beauty, itself a concept that excludes.

The poem acts as a succinct counterargument to the hothouse sensuality of The Song of Songs.  Instead of ecstasy uniting two individuals, it is “a loneliness.”  Despite advances in technology and the advances of feminism and male sensitivity, the “ecstasy” remains an individual experience.  The term “ecstasy” is also curious, since it implies a biological orgasm, but also calls back the sensual mysticism of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.  (Is the body really a vessel of evil and corruption when the best we can hope for in the sacred realm is Joel Osteen telling us Jesus wants us all to get rich?  That seems rather crass, not to mention shortsighted and rather vulgar, as if Christ’s only concerns were the capital gains tax.)

The debate continues with the man asserting the woman was “helpless with joy … moaning and weeping.”  But, she retorts, “We pretend to ourselves that we are touching. / The heart lies to itself because it must.”

The man asserts an analytical assessment of the situation: since she was moaning and weeping, she must have been in ecstasy.  Job well done.  All very scientific and quantifiable – shades of Blake’s dictatorial Urizen – while the woman undercuts his single-vision rationality.  Yes, she did those things, but in the end, “we pretend to ourselves that we are touching.”  One would be exceptionally naïve to allege we only think about one’s partner when one does the deed.  While the flesh and voice respond to the stimuli, the woman understands the situation.  In the giant spy novel Harlot’s Ghost, Norman Mailer writes about a hapless adulterous protagonist on his way to his mistress, a character who (to paraphrase)  thinks of monogamy as “orgies unimagined.”  In other words, even within the sacred confines of heterosexual monogamy – the bulwark of Western Christian civilization to the carnally deranged minions of the conservative Right – the mind finds other things (people, combinations, situations, and roles) of which to think.  To assume otherwise is simply dishonest.

In the end, “The heart lies to itself because it must.”  A certain degree of dishonesty is part and parcel of any functioning relationship.  Not everyone can be that sexually honest with their partner, and confessing infidelities of the Imagination comes awfully close to Orwellian thoughtcrime, especially given the reflexive omnipresence and inventive nature of the human libido.  (Real infidelities are a different matter.)  But these imaginative infidelities do not undercut the genuine faithfulness of those involved, at least in the general sense.  The poem leaves things a little more open-ended, since we don’t know the precise nature of this assignation.  Gilbert calls her “the woman” but we aren’t sure if this is just poetic license or a transcription of an actual infidelity.  And even with Gilbert’s Ivy League pedigree, the conversation seems a bit arch and contrived, even by the standards of adulterous East Coast academics.  But the poem is more about what is said than who is saying it.

Love, lust, and lying remain the central undercurrents of the poem, infusing it with a profundity and delicious eroticism.  While the title sounds like a random line from a Natalie Imbruglia song – “Something something something / lying naked on the floor” – the poem itself contains a beautiful rumination on the nature of bodily lusts and emotional honesty.  Within his oeuvre, Gilbert revisits these common themes, exploring the labyrinths of desire, truth, and grace, but with a poetic power that undercuts my rather pretentious explanations.  His intellectually sensual poem gives the reader a moment respite from the loneliness of existence, tearing back the veil of lies we tell ourselves, and doing it in a remarkably brief way that shoots across the page with the brilliance of a comet.

LMB: You recently defended – for lack of a better word – the use of melodrama in poetics. Why do you think people are so uncomfortable with it?

CF: It’s funny, because I don’t think melodrama itself is the problem; think, for example, of the melodramatics in Keats, in Eliot, in Donne – the first stanza of The Good Morrow is as dramatic as any Lana Del Rey song or Minnis poem. I think the real issue is that people have a problem with feminine melodramatics; it’s why Plath became the poster child for some crass concept of Confessionalism (even though another melodramatic man, Robert Lowell, is really responsible for that whole mess) in spite of the fact that she was a master craftsman and genius of the literary costume.

So, I think it’s a gendered issue more than a simple one of dramatic/not-dramatic. The “problem” with girly melodrama in contemporary poetry has to do less with the gesture and more with the thing against which the dramatic girl or queer of female-identified poet is reacting against. Look back to Freud’s case study of Dora, the classic hysteric: her fits of melodrama made people uncomfortable because it forced them to acknowledge some previous hurt or wrongdoing. It’s easier for people to discount the dramatic female voice in literature as a substanceless performance rather than actually dealing with the issues that would cause someone, say, to want to put together something like Marie Calloway’s Google Docs, or Joyelle McSweeney’s very bratty and dramatic Percussion Grenade – which is all about acting out, being loud, wearing costumes, and throwing a tantrum.

LMB: MY LIFE IS A MOVIE – the title itself – is a good bit melodramatic. People seem to be afraid of too many details; I’ve been told myself that “sparse” is good. Less isn’t more, to me, though. In fact, I think melodrama goes a long way. You detail your work extravagantly; I feel like I am getting wasted and then having my heart ripped out. Did you write this book for you, or for the world?

CF: It is dramatic, and intentionally so. In a lot of ways, this was a way for me to work through the issues I have/had with the label of Confessionalism; A lot of the things in MLIAM actually happened, and that’s why I chose the title. The scene with the Austrian welder and getting lost at Ground Zero, and there’s a bit where a jogger gets hit by a car; I workshopped an early version of this and someone actually said that the getting hit by a car thing felt too contrived and overtly melodramatic, that it seemed as though I had put it there for shock value.

The other thing that’s important to note is that MLIAM came directly out of the co-morbid phenomena of reality TV and child actors. My mom and sister had just started filming Dance Moms: Miami, and I had shot two episodes with them and felt really conflicted about it. I was a professional actress for like the first eleven years of my life; I used to be really ashamed, and kept it secret. In graduate school I decided to “come out” as a former child actress when Johannes [Goransson] made us write these manifestoes in my first graduate workshop, and for the first time I allowed myself to acknowledge how intensely that experience (I mean, it was literally half of my life, at the time) affected my poetics.

Growing up in the film and television industry gave me a really different way of thinking about ideas of framing, narrative, truth, and performativity, I think, and in MLIAM I try to give the reader a sense of what it’s like to live within or in the aftermath of that experience.


LMB: You’ve created The Bratty Poets Series. Is there a certain brattiness in all poets that goes unidentified that you’d like to showcase?

CF: Absolutely, and that’s why I started the series – which is less a “Series” in the traditional sense and more a sort of watering hole around which people might gather when they’re feeling a particular variety of thirst. The thing about brattiness is that it’s sporadic, irrational, sometimes childish, and always right. It has an aesthetic but it also doesn’t exclude any particular aesthetic or camp, it’s cliquey but it’s a quality of every clique, by nature. The Bratty Poets Series, more than anything else, is a way to start breaking down the whole “these cool kids over here, those cool kids over there, these aging hipsters hanging out in Brooklyn, those pretentious hipsters in the Academy” quality of “the scene,” such as it is. It’s a nicely decorated padded room in which poets are totally allowed to have a fit.

LMB: Your book trailer is touchy. In it, I say that men don’t only love women for their breasts, but it’s sure a reason. Why did you choose to record your friends, and how does this relate to MY LIFE IS A MOVIE, aside from the obvious?

CF: MLIAM has two definable locations – the City and the Old West. It’s never really clear which is the real and which is the sur-real, because they’re generally interchangeable terms in this movie. When I moved back to New York this summer I was staying with different friends, all of them poets, I was out of school for the first time in almost ten years, I had one suitcase and a guitar, and I felt this really intense sense of being non-locatable. So the footage I shot during those first weeks when I was back in the City and I was really emotionally in shambles for various reasons were in some ways an effort to create for myself a sense of reality; this is my place, these are my people.

The first video I took was of a poet friend sitting on her couch, on which I was sleeping at the time, smoking a cigarette and crying and talking about how many times she had tried to quit smoking. It was very early in the morning, and all anyone had done so far that day in that apartment was write poems and smoke cigarettes, and the light was really perfect and her sadness was so real and beautiful and happening right then; it was like when you see your favorite painting for the first time and want to keep it with you forever. I had an iPhone and there was this gorgeous thing happening front of me and I thought, people should have access to this. Which is the same thought that’s really at the heart of MLIAM.

LMB: If your poetry were any pop-star, who would it be?

CF: Alanis Morisette. She’s such a brat, and very angsty and melodramatic. She’s also a brilliantly talented technical musician. People tend to not see the latter and just think of her as that heartbroken 90s girl who screams, but she’s way more than that. And my favorite Alanis Morisette song is Unsent, which is absolutely no one’s favorite Alanis Morisette song. I was eight when it came out, and it was and is very relevant to my life.

LMB: We both just received our MFAs in poetry. There is a lot of talk about uber-Masters and medieval practices and sheer wastes of money. What are your experiences with the system?

CF: I’m probably the wrong person to ask about this, because I believe fully in the ideas of Poetic Lineage, the tradition of an apprentice being shepherded along by a Master, and Feudalistic economies in general. I write about it in an essay on my blog called FEUDALISM IS RAD, and you performed the role of the Idol in my play, EVERYBODY, LET’S BELIEVE IN THIS IMAGINARY CURRENCY at The Bowery Poetry Club last summer, which was essentially “about” the whole issue of the MFA economy. As far as the MFA itself goes, there are a two things I was told by the person who taught me as an undergrad, and these are some of my personal ultimate truths: don’t pay money to get an MFA, and don’t get an MFA for any other reason than the luxury of two (or three) years during which you have no obligation except to your work.

That being said, once I got to my MFA program (which was amazing, by the way, and certainly not for everyone but I wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere else) I got very angsty and resentful of the whole thing. I wrote this long allegorical poem called The Princess and The Ivory Tower, which was a very bratty treatise on what I perceived as the injustices of being a young female in a fundamentally broken Academia, during my first semester. That poem really idealizes the sort of Grand Pastoral experience of learning about poetry, which is an exaggeration of my experience as an undergrad, as antithetical to the sorts of masturbatory arguments that can happen in a hyper-theorized context. In retrospect, I’m really glad that such places exist so that arguments, in general, can happen. They need not be “productive,” they need only to continue.

LMB: You write, “I feel so sincere it makes for bad poems” in MY LIFE IS A MOVIE. How does any good poet balance sincerity with craft, and how do you translate the bigness of life into a poem?

CF: That’s the Big Question, isn’t it? Especially with all of the “New Sincerity” vomit all over the internet (to which I’ve admittedly contributed a few bucketfuls). During my aforementioned Grand Pastoral upbringing, my teacher brought two irises into his office when we met to discuss my poem one morning: one was a wild iris, and the other was a hothouse iris. They were both formally excellent examples of an iris, but one had certainly been bred/crafted to have a quality of showiness, whereas the other had more or less just grown. I think the lesson he meant to teach me that day was about the difference between a public and a private poem, but it seems to apply to the sincerity argument, too. Is the hothouse iris less of an iris; is the wild iris less beautiful?

LMB: Your life/poems is/are a Lynch film. Which one?

CF: Actually, I totally can’t watch David Lynch films. And I don’t like Twin Peaks. I’ve tried, and I just can’t – but I get why other people are into it. My life/poems are a Meg Ryan romantic comedy, or one of those movies in which Drew Barrymore fucks everything up and still gets the boy.

__________________________________________________
Carina Finn is a poet, playwright, and multimedia artist. She is the author of I HEART MARLON BRANDO, which was published in a limited screenprint edition in 2010 by Wheelchair Party Press. Her play, EVERYBODY, LET’S BELIEVE IN THIS IMAGINARY CURRENCY, premiered at The Bowery Poetry Club, and THIRTEEN WAYS OF BREAKING was workshopped and premiered thanks to the generosity of the Film, Television, & Theatre department at The University of Notre Dame. She a graduate of Sweet Briar College, has an MFA in poetry from Notre Dame, lives in New York City, and blogs at www.ladyblogblah.wordpress.com

Birds of Lace is a feminist press founded & edited by Gina Abelkop. Born in 2005 and currently based in Berkeley, CA, Birds of Lace publishes the literary and arts journal Finery as well as chapbooks by emerging writers. Recent releases include Jason Helm’s Fetish, Carrie Murphy’s Meet the Lavenders, Leon Baham’s Ponyboy Sigh, and Anna Joy Springer’s debut novella The Birdwisher.

ORDER CARINA FINN’S MY LIFE IS A MOVIE

Portland just feels different. That can seem like an unfortunate statement to anyone already living here, because the rent spikes another forty bucks every time it’s uttered, but that doesn’t make those four words any less true. They seem especially true now to those of us in the local literary community, because everything that has made Portland a Mecca for musicians and visual artists for the last decade or so is here in earnest for the poets, too.

“Community” is an important word. While it feels like there have been small pockets scattered around the city of close friends, or trusted confidants, who write together, offer feedback, and support each other’s efforts, bringing those groups together into a larger, more diverse local presence never seemed quite possible until recently. There have been some touchstone figures and organizations working in the literary spectrum this whole time, to be sure—Kevin Sampsell, small press guru of Burnside Powell’s and seemingly tireless driving force behind Future Tense press immediately comes to mind as a kind of figurehead for the local indie press movement, along with the Independent Press Resource Center (IPRC), helmed by Justin Hocking. There’s also Literary Arts, which brings in figures from all over the upper stratosphere of the literary world, while constantly working to support local writers, publishers, and journals. There has also been a guardianship of Oregon’s literary tradition maintained largely by organizations like the Friends of William Stafford (the board of trustees includes Paulanne Petersen, Oregon’s sixth poet laureate and reads like a who’s who of the national poetry scene spanning the last few decades).

It’s not like Portland woke up one morning and joined the larger contemporary poetry world in progress. Considering how much of the year we spend covered by thick, flat-gray clouds and perpetually soaked by the fine mist that hangs in the air everywhere all fall, winter, and spring, Portlanders have a lot of time to engage in their “indoor” hobbies and pride themselves on being a well-read crowd. You are equally likely to get turned on to a new author while mixing concrete on a construction site as you would while wandering around one of the many libraries and bookstores. Portland is a well-read city in the midst of a well-read state and has more than its fair share of writers, which has been made patently clear over the years.

At the height of the popularity of slam poetry during the nineties, Portland made waves in the national scene for having the lowest-scoring audiences in the nation. It seemed like this city was an excellent place for performance poets to get their egos raked across the coals any time their material favored pure performance over literary merit, or substantiality.

As slam fizzled out locally (not to effectively reappear until very recently), about a thousand open mics seemed to pop up around the city. These ranged from quiet bookstore or library affairs to rowdier barroom readings sometimes accompanied by musicians and DJ’s. I hosted on of the latter type for a year-and-a-half, learning a lot about that particular scene from several sides of the picture.

Those open mics were a great thing for a lot of budding poets. Even now, they can create a space to work on reading voices, make friends with people who are also into what can feel like one of the more despised art forms in America (especially for those of us who have friends that like to bitch about how much they hate poetry), figure out their craft, and occasionally (very occasionally) meet someone to date. But, as much as open mics are a great way for new poets to start figuring things out, they have problems, too.

After visiting a number of these around town, and running one, I started to notice that the same group of people would migrate around and read the same set at every single open mic that fit their schedule. Since most of these were weeklies, the homogeneity was palpable. This group of regulars made up the bulk of the readers at each open mic, and seldom—if ever—played the audience role well. If a new person (especially a woman, the bulk of the regulars all seem to be men) wandered in to the open mic, all the regulars would break out their “big guns”—whatever got a good response from that particular crowd in the past—which would be fine, excepting that the same set might be repeated over and over every week depending on how many strangers showed up.

The close quarters also seemed to lend it to deep, jealous rivalries. Little, sometimes one-sided, wars would break out among regular readers.  Keeping track of who hated whom could drive a person to drinking heavily, especially since so much effort on the part of whoever had a grudge went into trying to recruit supporters. Since the same general group would be at each reading, there might be no escape from the machinations of angry regulars.

Granted, this behavior was only really common among the divas in the group—primarily male, prone to redlining microphones by screaming “fuck” a lot, and frequently given to rambling “off the cuff” medleys of their memorized work. Since the bigger personalities were often at odds with one another, it could sometimes be hard to see past them and find the distinct value in the open mics, especially if the goal was to check out some poetry. Of course, the value is there and its discovery can keep someone (like me) coming back week after week for the flashes of surprise that can make the open mic so worthwhile.

Despite the problems, fresh art can be found frequently at open mics, along with amazing feats of performance. I remember standing in amazement one time while a guy recited “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” from memory, and again while Tom Blood (who would later win the Oregon Book Award) “read” in his strange, lilting tone from blank sheets of paper. The surprises are what makes the open mics worth visiting—which is probably true everywhere—especially when there’s an energy to specific venues. The energy is more likely to attract diversity, and simple high school biology tells us that a diverse ecosystem is less likely to collapse. In fact, that surprise and that energy are probably the key reasons why Slam took off so hard in the nineties.

While some of the open mics struggled with inbreeding, and seemed to be providing fewer surprises, many of the smaller curated readings didn’t fare as well as one would like. Attendance could be abyssmal for numerous reasons: popular open mic regulars noticably absent anywhere but the open mics at which they read (often citing issues of authenticity), no reliable list of events to be found anywhere, only a handful running on a regular enough schedule (usually monthly) to predict.

Unfortunately, some curated readings would be followed by an open mic, as a strategy to build or keep audience, a practice that deeply violates my old punk rock ethos—whoever tours headlines!—but also creates an environment in which the open mic crowd starts noisily arriving somewhere in the middle of the last “featured” poet’s set. The host might then transition from the curated portion to the open part by saying something like, “we listened to you, now you listen to us,” which can seem hypocritical since the “us” in question often has just walked in the front door, or spent the last twenty minutes shuffling papers, not listening to anyone at all.

Many of the other curated events suffered from lack of publicity to a point where I might catch sight of some local poet walking into a café or gallery while I was out getting groceries and, if I dropped what I was doing and followed him or her, I’d wander into a reading that featured some touring poet whom I’d never heard. Sometimes the reading would actually be kind of a big deal, but news of its existence wouldn’t seem to make it into the light of day until after the fact.

The newspapers didn’t help. If anything the local weeklies and the Oregonian appeared to be pointedly ignoring the local literary scene. I remember sitting in an editorial meeting while working as an intern for Willamette Week right as there seemed to be a small, sudden influx of new energy in local poetry, mentioning an upcoming event as possibly being worth a blurb and getting “slam poetry is dead” for the trouble. Yes. Slam was (at least temporarily) dead in Portland. Of course, that’s not at all what I was talking about.

Then something changed. Just as more Portland writers started getting national recognition, an influx of highly active, extraordinarily community-oriented people showed up on the local scene, injecting the city with a new vitality. I don’t know who came first. It was like an explosion. Now the city is filled with people who really give a shit. Not just about the art, but about fostering relationships between everyone with a shared interest in the art. Willamette Week lists the slam almost every week (along with all the amazing stuff happening around the city), Oregonian has a poetry column that only occasionally is bumped, Portland Mercury thankfully lost or fired all their lit-crit Reed alumni and replaced them with people who only occasionally rip on poetry.

It is fucking awesome, and as far as I can tell, directly linked to a few key events.

I remember walking into my first (their third) If Not for Kidnap, held in the living room of a large shared house off of César E. Chavez Blvd. (it was 39th Ave, then). I was nervous as hell because the thing I can handle the least is being around a crowd of people. Plus, I wasn’t experienced with the kind of energy this group put out. It was a semi-BYOB event, with a couple of half-racks of Pabst parked on the table to fortify all the wine everyone brought. I was there with my girlfriend who’s also nervous in a crowd, carrying a bottle of red wine and wishing there was someplace nearby to get a whiskey shot. We were, of course, a little early.

Although I don’t like crowds, I do like readings, and I wanted to try to be as close to the readers as possible. The hosts, Donald Dunbar and Jamalieh Haley, were still busy putting the living room together. I’d met Donald Dunbar before, but tonight he was radiating waves of calm energy. It felt good. In fact, I’d never felt so completely welcomed into a space in my life. Kate Bucko, a friend and classmate from PSU, was a roommate in the house and provided shots pilfered from a secret stash. We went out to the back porch, to get out of the way, and met Marshal Walker Lee and Drew Scott Swenhaugen (who we’d later learn are the engine behind Poor Claudia, one of the prettiest journals I’ve seen). By the time the reading started, it was packed. People were all over the floor, directly in front of the microphone to watch Emily Kendal Frey and Lisa Ciccarello. The excitement in the room hung on everything like humidity.

I’d never seen a reading like it in Portland. In the last twelve years, I’ve been to bookstore readings, library events, slams, literary variety shows, readings by extremely famous poets in massive venues, and countless poetry open mics. I’d talked with people about what a “good” reading looked like and heard a gamut of ideal events ranging from boozy rowdiness to church-like silence. This reading got silent, but it didn’t have the stuffy feeling of being at a strict protestant service. People were drinking, but nobody in the audience reached the point where they had to heckle or shout or otherwise make themselves more important than the readers. It was rapt attention. Everyone in the room was really into the poetry. And the poetry was good. It was funny, strange, and sometimes sad. It felt great.

Matty Byloos and Carrie Seitzinger kicked off the Smalldoggies reading series (named after their press and magazine) a little over a year ago at a bar off of Hawthorne that boasted impossibly cheap pints of Ninkasi IPA. The bar closed and they’ve moved it to the basement stage at Blue Monk, a venue that has historically shown solid support for the literary crowd in Portland. It’s a remarkable event, and has been touted by some as one of the more important regular readings in Portland. Part of what makes it incredible for an audience member is that Carrie or Matty are right there at the door, despite having a show to put on, to say hi and take donations. Their presence is thread throughout the whole evening, as they swap emcee duties and prepare the audience for each new segment. The format is great, too. Since the beginning, they’ve had a band or musician open the show, followed by the readers—almost the reverse of any event I’ve ever seen. The music is often unexpected, sometimes raucous, and always contemporary—I think I’ve seen more indie-rock open for poets and writers at Smalldoggies than anything else, the most recent show featuring Curious Hands, one of my favorite local bands to see live.

Again, what marks Smalldoggies as being so great is that it has the same kind of intense energy as INFK; the audience’s attention is undivided. The venue helps. People who are more interested in socializing can hang out upstairs, leaving the fans to the work of watching, but it’s hard to think there are too many people bailing on the reading, the seats are almost always completely full and the entire back end of the room is regularly filled with people standing near the bar without ordering drinks.

Bad Blood shares this feeling. Drew Swenhaugen, Joseph Mains, and Zachary Schomburg originally put these readings together at the Work / Sound gallery right off of Morrison, moving them to ADX after a while. Bad Blood comes out of nowhere, sometimes, and can happen any night of the week. The news of a new show releases anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months in advance, depending on what’s being booked, giving the events the feeling of being like a party the hosts threw together to break up the wet, gray doldrums of Portland weather. This is a group that’s also not afraid to mix it up, often inviting filmmakers to show off work. The readings feel cathartic, making Carolyn and I crazy about running off somewhere to talk about every little moment, the way we do after watching a movie.

I’m not sure what started this, exactly, but I’m glad it’s happening. Portland is changing by strides, so much so that the poetry produced from this city is significantly different than what has come before. Categorizing it is the job of more critical minds, but there is a real shift away from quiet meditations on the Pacific Northwest landscape and a move toward touching, dreamlike visions, absurdity, and dry humor. There are well put together readings several times a month that have all the energy, excitement, and audience I’ve ever dreamed of seeing at any of the smaller, independent events I’ve visited over the last decade or so and there are really good poets just hanging out everywhere.

It’s a renaissance. Maybe that’s too big a word. Nobody is inventing the new physics here (that I know of), but there’s a clear change in the fabric of Portland and it’s making the city love poetry again.

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956, edited by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck.  Cambridge University Press, 2011. 791 pp.

The temptation to snoop overtakes all of us by moments, and unsought-after opportunity suddenly finds our eyes riveted to letters not meant for us.  There have been figures in literary history fully prepared to forgive the intrusion: Madame de Sévigné eventually heard that her letters were being handed around among her admirers but never stopped dashing off her acute and fluent observations about life at the Sun King’s court or in the provinces.  We wouldn’t remember the eighteenth-century figure Horace Walpole except for his letters, texts composed with the sort of regard, witty phrasing, and visual detail found only among those who write with one eye towards posterity. Aside from ecclesiastical epistles, collections of letters were not often published before the nineteenth century.  During the twentieth, they appeared much more often, with the interval between the author’s death and eventual publication of a selected correspondence steadily narrowing.  The three-volume edition of Virginia Woolf’s letters was probably the first such collection to reach a wide audience, but author letters now amount to a reliable niche in contemporary publishing.  Because of changes in society and the frank disclosures of modern biography, we’ve become more tolerant of personal failings in our star literary figures. We can listen to them in their off hours, their fits of pique, their bawdy moments, and not be shocked—or, if we are, take it in stride.  Meanwhile, the autobiographical, engaged aspect of contemporary poetry could also be described as “epistolary,” even if the poem isn’t addressed to any single individual. Qualities such as narrative economy, informality, or comic irony are standard for our “letters to the world” (one description Dickinson applied to her poems), and those same qualities are prominent in actual letters.

This book is the second volume in the Cambridge University Press edition of Beckett’s selected letters, the first covering the period 1929 to 1940. Though Beckett’s will stipulated that only that part of the correspondence having to do with his writing should be published after his death, the editors have interpreted the criterion broadly.  Personal letters that never mention his fiction or theatrical works are included, and it’s a good editorial decision.  Authors’ writing selves are never walled off from private concerns or obsessions.  All of it goes into the hopper, as careful reader-critics will eventually come to see, even though the connection may be stylistic only.  Consider this sentence from one of Beckett’s personal letters: “I had a glimpse of Brian over to bury his father looking very married and tired.”  (To Gwynedd Reavey, May 1945.)   Beckett’s thumbnail sketch of Brian Coffey arriving for a Dublin funeral exemplifies characteristic virtues: sharp economy, agile prose rhythm, and unsavage irony. We sense that the son is in imminent danger of following on his father’s heels as he trudges onward under the married condition. In any case, it’s a sentence worth putting in a poem, though we don’t find it in any of Beckett’s. The sometime poet was more memorable in his prose works than the actual poems, as he himself must have realized fairly soon in his development.

The title of this volume is a little misleading in that it gives us only one letter from 1941 and none subsequent until 1945.  As a citizen of the neutral Irish Republic, Beckett was allowed to remain in France during the German Occupation. Abjuring neutral status, he soon went underground and participated in Résistance operations, serving as a courier among several other agents. When one of them was captured and interrogated, the cell of resisters Beckett belonged to had to scatter. He and his companion Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil fled south to Free France, setting up in the little village of Roussillon. Only at the Liberation did he return to the post office and re-establish contact with his friends.

When he did, his correspondents can’t have failed to notice a change in his tone.  The first volume of letters gave us a Beckett often disgruntled and sneering, anxious about money, pleased to be drinking so much, and eager to publish, but rarely managing the trick.  Professional writers will find a perverse reassurance in observing this god of twentieth-century literature, this Nobel laureate, scrambling around from magazine to publishing house like any green careerist, and more often than not swallowing bluntly phrased rejections. But in the long run the record of this early phase makes for uncomfortable reading, even if the ambitious letter-writer’s style is acute and engaging.  Events Beckett had witnessed during the war, or only heard about, seem to have permanently shifted his perspective.  His post-war letters are generally quieter, more patient, perhaps more humane, than those in the earlier volume.  There is also the fact that he began by the late 1940s to have some success as an author, his novels appearing with the new publishing house Les Editions de Minuit. The name means “midnight publications,” and indeed the new house had begun during the Résistance, organized as an underground operation by its founder Jérôme Lindon.  Editorial taste at Les Editions de Minuit gravitated towards French avant-garde fiction, its list eventually including leading figures of the French nouveau roman like Robbe-Grillet. Judging from the letters Beckett wrote to him, Lindon became rather more than his publisher, in fact, something like a close friend.

Readers should be forewarned that more than half the letters included here were written in French. Editor George Craig provides good translations, along with notes alerting us to mistakes in usage or spelling. Beckett’s written French was very good, and not at all the stiff classroom version you might expect from a non-native speaker. He writes a fluent, satiric, slangy idiom that sounds as though it was picked up in the Montparnasse cafés he frequented, like La Coupole or Le Dôme. Also, because his wife didn’t know much English, French was the language the couple used at home, a running conversation that gave Beckett special access to the contemporary language. Occasionally he stumbles over words that look like cognates but actually aren’t; for example, “fastidieux,” which he uses to mean “fastidious,” though the French only apply that adjective to festal celebrations, those involving pomp and display.  His letters often quote tags from classic poems, and for these George Craig chooses extant versions rather than providing new ones of his own. In one instance, when Beckett is quoting Baudelaire’s “Réversibilité,” his footnote cites Richard Howard’s rendering of the poem, which translates “dévouement” as “disgust,” whereas the word actually means “devotion.” Howard no doubt had his reasons for translating with a free hand, but scholarly notes keep to a different standard and should have avoided this inaccuracy.

To regard Beckett’s French-language letters as spring training for the works he later composed in the language is plausible, yet his style in the letters is much more florid than in the novels. Beckett typically develops long sentences freighted with subordinate clauses, and sometimes resorts to a syntax based on the comma splice.  You see these tendencies at their most hectic in the letters to George Duthuit, an art critic and essayist who for a time served as contributing editor to Transition magazine.  Whenever Beckett writes to him, the style is so torrential, so metaphoric, so satiric, you begin to feel he was trying to show off his mastery of French as much as his overall authorial competence. Did Beckett not know that the French prefer a more restrained approach, with short, concentrated sentences rationally composed, subordinate clauses meanwhile kept to a minimum? If he did, he shrugged off the standard and wrote his helter-skelter blue streaks without any detectable qualms.

Beckett finally achieved fame with his play En attendant Godot, which opened at Paris’s Théâtre de Babylone in 1953. It was written in French and only later translated. This volume’s letters track the run-up to the first production, its première, and the gathering groundswell of fame that developed after reviews began appearing.  The alchemical action of publicity transformed Beckett’s life and consciousness just as thoroughly as the disaster of war had done.  Good news for the published and performed writer was not, all things considered, equally good for the letters.  More and more they are written to strangers as he handles business details connected to translation and publication of his work abroad. It’s something I’ve observed before in other collections of author’s letters.  The young and unfamous aspirant most often writes to friends, having both the time and energy for long, detailed, witty updates or closely argued esthetic manifestoes. The mature celebrity, though, has been drained by all the business to be dealt with in correspondence and can’t find the energy or the will to write at length to his friends.  Enjoying widespread recognition, he no longer needs to prove anything by drafting flamboyant displays of intelligence, impressive feats of observation, or polished phrasing.  He saves the best for the work he expects to publish. Not immediately after Godot, but toward the late 1950s Beckett begins to write less vividly.  It is the earlier letters in this collection that most reward attention. To give an example: after Godot opened, Beckettt’s wife attended an early performance without him and noticed that in Act II Roger Blin, the actor playing Pozzo, was gripping his loose, unbelted trousers rather than allowing them to fall down around his ankles, in keeping with stage directions.  This prompted a letter to Blin, in which Beckett insisted that the stage direction should be followed.  His reason for demanding maximum humiliation for the character was this: “The spirit of the play, in so far as it has one, is that nothing is more grotesque than the tragic, and that must be put across right to the end, and particularly at the end.”  In Beckett’s vision, human tragedy is not accorded the grandeur of, say, Sophocles’s Oedipus or Racine’s Andromaque: it unfolds in a series of grotesque situations and actions, so that we laugh and wince simultaneously.

They grow sparse, but Beckett’s letters to personal friends like George Reavey, Mania Perón, and Thomas MacGreevy continue in the volume, providing human relief from the impersonal business correspondence. A special case is the group of letters to Pamela Mitchell, a young American with whom he began a love affair not long after she arrived in Paris to negotiate for USA rights to Godot.  (We aren’t told whether the affair unfolded with or without Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil’s permission.)  After Mitchell’s return home, Beckett sends a number of letters to her, always with an affectionate regard and lightness of touch.  Here is an excerpt from one he composed in March of 1955 at his country retreat near Ussy in the Île de France: “Trees surviving, even the two shy apples showing signs of life.  Shall soon have to buy a mechanical scyther-mower, never get round the grass otherwise. Visited by partridges now daily, about midday. Queer birds. They hop, listen, hop, listen, never seem to eat. Wretched letter, forgive me. Hope you can read it all the same.”  Years pass, the two aren’t reunited, and Beckett gently lets Mitchell down. But the brief idyll gives us a sense of Beckett as lover, and the impression, despite the relationship’s unconventional context, has a graceful appeal.  After all, Pamela Mitchell knew that he was married right at the start.  Eventually fame takes its toll, (as all fulfilled dreams must), and the later Beckett settles into the psychological armchair he found most comfortable, that is, despairing negation.  One letter to Mitchell puts it this way: “The notion of happiness has no meaning at all for me now. All I want is to be in the silence.”

To her he also wrote,“Pen drying up too, like myself.” And,“Wish I could discover why my cursed prose won’t go into English.”  It’s a comment that makes us want to ask, “But why did you write it in French to begin with?” Beckett gave several answers, one delivered in private to a friend: “To get myself noticed.” But that must, at least in part, be a joke. To interviewers, he answered that French was an escape from English, which he knew too well to achieve the bare-bones stylistic effects he desired.  Another way he put it was, “à fin d’avoir moins de style” [in order to have less style].  We can see that it would be inconsistent to write about destitution and despair in an abundant, luxuriant idiom. What he needed was a blunt instrument, and colloquial, unliterary French gave him that.

Yet we still want to go back a step further and uncover the forces in his experience that drove him to prefer near-absolute negativity as his essential perspective on experience.  A list of possible explanations might include the absence of any sort of religious consolation; lasting effect of years of poverty and neglect; exile from a homeland he detested yet also missed; the death of parents and friends; knowledge of horrific things that had happened during the war; the loss of youth, health, and any expectation that human love might be redemptive for him.  All of these are perfectly plausible. Yet there are purely artistic explanations as well.  His close association with Joyce must have demonstrated to him that nothing more in the direction of excess, linguistic fireworks, and elaborate construction could be done. Joyce had got there first, and Beckett wasn’t so full of confidence as to compete with him on the turf the older Irishman had made his own.  Instead, Beckett turned 180 degrees, charting a course in the direction of austerity, of stylistic minimalism.  It’s also apposite to consider a citation from Francesco De Sancis that Beckett included in his brief study of Proust: “Chi non ha la forza di uccidere la realtá non ha la forza di crearla.” [Whoever lacks the strength to murder reality will not have the strength to create it.] In order to write, Beckett first had to wipe the slate clean and wipe out conventional notions about the nature of human reality. Doing so he was able to transform pessimism into a creative source, a nay-saying Muse who guided him to his masterworks. Yet he had to wait a long time before the letter announcing acceptance and acclaim arrived; and by then it was too late.

Gene-cov-lg

Gene Tanta begins his first book of poems, Unusual Woods, with a 20-page essay that takes shots at T.S. Eliot, Harold Bloom and others. Why does he do this and what is he trying to say?

Surrealism and one of its American progeny, Deep Image poetry, have never been fully accepted. Their stock has taken a dip in the last few decades. But they are still with us, and they shape our contemporary poetry scene arguably as much as any of the other big guns of modern poetry: Whitman, Imagism, Symbolism.

What Gene Tanta has done in Unusual Woods is take the project of Deep Image poetry, which is to recuperate and shape myths from the images buried in our collective unconscious, and make it local rather than universal. In particular, he is assembling images from various fragments of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. (The collective unconscious is of course a Jungian concept made famous by archetypal criticism and the Deep Image poets. It is the idea that the collective memories of the human race emerge in various forms, such as myths, folklore and the like.)

As I said, Tanta makes poetry out of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. I say it this way because it is different from any of the following: (a) poetry built on the cultural memory particular only to the Romanian and/or Romanian immigrant experience, (b) the rendering of images and myths only for Romanians, or (c) a poetry that has a particularly Romanian (political) subtext. Instead, Tanta realizes that while his personal and Romanian self is reflected in his work, his American immigrant experience (and his generally human experience) is as well. In fact, the images that make up the 13-line demi-sonnets of Unusual Woods are universally human (while being contemporary). And he is creating “myths” that are universal.

So why does Tanta make such a big deal about his heritage and immigrant identity? In effect, Tanta is doing what any Deep Image poet does (or did)—we all make what we can out of the pieces of the collective unconscious that have been lodged in our particular psyches. A Jungian expects no more or less of anyone. The difference between Tanta and the traditional Deep Image approach is that Tanta foregrounds the particularity and individuality of his own memories and experiences. He knows his cultural biography is the lens through which he experiences and makes sense of his American (and generally human) experience.

This is a level of introspection that most of the Deep Image poets cared only somewhat about. (Jerome Rothenberg is an obvious exception, but he is better understood as the arbiter of ethnopoetics.) The others, such as Robert Bly, James Wright, Robert Kelly, are fully invested in the project of finding (somewhat interchangeably) universal and American myths. Also, in as far as they saw themselves as continuing the project of the great modernists, especially the Imagists, these poets were loosely committed to poetry as a universal art form, even if they didn’t take it quite as far as to say a poem exists only as an aesthetic object. These days, our claims about poetry are more modest. We recognize that the role of cultural biography inevitably ties our writing to material, contextual existence.

Recent decades have seen a surge in the “hybrid” poetries of American immigrants. What is particularly interesting about this poetic scene is that Eastern European poets writing as immigrants in English seem, generally, to be keenly aware of the “hybrid” quality of their poetry—they know they have more than one tap root in cultural experience. And yet, they remain ambiguous, or even agnostic, about what the particular components of this hybrid poetics are.

In his essay, however, Tanta offers at least a few concrete explanations. First, he, as an ESL poet, experiences idiomatic language as non-transparent. This shapes his experience of the language, which results in poetry that, like misunderstood idioms, mean different things to different readers: “As a form of linguistic irony, the idiomatic expression itself stands for two things at once, which of these two things the reader comes away with depends on the community with which the reader identifies” (30). This makes our reading of the text contingent and plural.

Another, more significant aspect of Tanta’s cultural biography comes from the mash-up of linguistic elements present within the Romanian tongue—partly Western Latinism, partly mongrelized Turkish and Slavic, Romanian has shaped the way Tanta approaches reality: “My own resistance to binary thinking feels ‘implicit’ and ‘experiential’ . . . and manifests in my practiced refusal to fit into categories of Romanian or American, Poet or Artist, Aesthete or Propagandist” (33). The claim is elemental and common, but it is essential: it’s not simply that different “content” is being inserted into our brains—it’s also that cultural and linguistic features have constructed our consciousness to process the content differently.

Ultimately, though, Tanta wants to have it both ways, and I think he is right. Even though both the form and content of Tanta’s work are particular to his Romanian-immigrant experience, he insists that his poetry is accessible to everyone. His poetry, he says, exists both as aesthetic objects and political propaganda. This is absolutely true about all poetry, not just his own. Inevitably, literary criticism will come to see that literature is always both. Most critics probably know this but have allowed themselves to stray from this obvious fact because the theory wars have created a false dichotomy between cultural and formalist criticism. Tanta brings us back to earth. We all experience texts as both universal and particular—both aesthetic and political:

I will not commit the essentialist error of taking myth of origin . . . only literally or figuratively: both the practical hardships of dislocation and the aesthetic insights that may accompany such cultural shifting go into creating our myths of origin. Cultural identity has multiple and simultaneous histories and motivating factors but this does [not] make it arbitrary. (35)

Later, he writes, “As a poet, I am interested in what the English language can do through how I use it. . . . As a critic, I am faced with the paradox that a poem operates both as an object with aesthetic form and as a process with social content” (36).

Tanta’s essay offers a corrective to the rest of the poetry world. Our readings need to focus on and scrutinize the dialectic between cultural biography and aesthetic form. Tanta claims merely that we need to do so if we are to understand his poetry, but it is not hard to see the wider implications of his argument—this goes for all literary texts. My own sense is that literary criticism has been beating around this bush for a while, even though when we are reading in our right minds most of us would probably concede this fact without difficulty. Many of us are probably already on board with this. Still, there is a notable absence of theory that directly targets the relationship between cultural biography and aesthetics. It’s odd and rather shocking.

Next time I will look at the poems of Unusual Woods, which are gorgeous and demonstrate what Tanta is saying in his essay. It is rewarding to read a poet who is willing explain his poetic approach and is knowledgeable enough to understand it without self-delusion.

Brooks Lampe reviews Andrew Joron’s Trance Archive

What a desperate trance!—The skyboat resembles a flying vulva; the city, the arc of an abandoned soliloquy.

Andrew Joron represents a small, almost indistinguishable enclave of contemporary poets who know (and appreciate that) they have been influenced by surrealism. Versus the rest of the contemporary poets who do not know they have.

Surrealism has been a controversial topic in recent decades, and there have been few poets or scholars willing (or courageous enough?) to acknowledge their indebtedness to the movement. (But not these poets! Thank God.) The biggest problem, supposedly, is one of identification and definition. Suffice it to say, in broad strokes, surrealist poetry demonstrates:

  • Radically disjunctive imagery (usually through mismatching terms from unrelated semantic fields)
  • An analogical vision of reality, wherein irreconcilable things are conceived in relations and thus are (potentially) made reconcilable
  • Undertones of Hegelian dialectic, Marxism, revolution and utopianism

At its heart, surrealism wages a political and ideological battle through language. By creating impossible images through placing disparate objects side-by-side, poetry dismantles and re-formulates our perceptions and conceptions of reality.

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